The Zenph re-creation of “The Goldberg Variations of ‘55" raise some interesting issues in music and art. Having touched on the issue of re-creation before it seemed as if I should write about them.
Like most classical musicians I have the greatest respect for J. S. Bach. His music matches unsurpassed greatness with a truly miraculous volume. Few composers approach his music in quality or quantity. Having played and taught some of Bach’s pieces for decades, it is music that doesn’t wear out with repeated exposure, changing ideas and emotions. Unlike many, I’m not so much a fan of Glenn Gould’s piano playing, though his early recordings of Bach were some of his best work. He was an amazing musician in many ways, even a genius. He was a very interesting and ambitious composer of tape music. The Idea of North alone would have given him that distinction but I’ve never liked his recording of other peoples’ music. Still, there are many beautiful things in his recording of the Variations and his 1955 recording is much better than the one made shortly before his too early death. Having heard both the original on LP and the new recreation using very up to date computer analysis and Yamaha reproduction technology with a very fine and very well engineered piano, I have to say the results are impressive.
Like almost everyone, I never heard Gould play live. He gave up public performance in favor of record very early. I haven’t heard a public “performance” of the Zenph recreation either, so any comparison will be between the issued recording and the reproduced recording. This gets to the issue of reproductions of performances, an additional wrinkle to the digital vs. vinyl pseudo-controversy so beloved of lazy public radio producers.
It is a question of definition. What constitutes a performance? Glenn Gould wrote well and at length, though not always coherently, about the issue of live performance and the increasingly accurate recording of them. For him the issue of corrective and preferential editing of recorded performances gave recordings the edge. I suspect that the convenience for himself and the ability it provided him to have a performance career while maintaining his favored urban hermit way of life was his real motive. He predicted the demise of live performance, though that doesn’t seem to have come about yet. But is a recording the “same thing”, even if it could fool every last person with very good ears? I don’t know the answer to that except to say that you could only compare one hearing of the recording to one live performance. Repeatedly listening to the recording would make the comparison ever more tenuous.
In his Russell Sherman’s wonderful book, “Piano Pieces”*, written around the same time he was recording the complete Beethoven Sonatas, he said that a set of 32 different performances of one of the sonatas would give insights into Beethoven that a recording of the 32 Sonatas wouldn’t**. He emphasizes the essential, living aspect of the kind of music that transcends any one performance of it, something that can’t be analyzed, systematized or defined but only experienced. This is what is lost in the recording of any one performance after a recorded performance acquires familiarity.
So, we get back to recordings, some by great pianists of the past, many of whom we have exactly one recording of any one work to hear. Are they worth listening to? Of course they are. There are great musical experiences in even the oldest, fuzziest and scratchiest recordings made in the wax-cylinder days. I’m waiting to hear the Zenph recreations of Busoni’s recordings and have heard the recreation of Cortot’s*** on the radio. The Art Tatum recordings I heard over the radio didn’t impress me as much, maybe they would if I heard them more than once.
* This is the best book I’ve ever read about playing the piano and one of the best I’ve ever read about music of any kind. I would recommend it to anyone interested in music.
If the comparison of recording technologies is invidious, comparing pianists is bound to be worse, but I can’t help pointing out that Russell Sherman is a far more original and brilliant pianist than Gould was, far more respectful of composers’ intentions and the essential quality of music being a real, live experience and far more open to other musicians’ ideas. I would recommend his recordings and live performances to anyone.
** The composer Kenneth Gaburo said that Beethoven’s 32 Sonatas are such individual creations that instead of concentrating on the superficial formal similarities they share that they should be considered sui generis. In the most basic way this is true of all music and most true of great music.
*** It’s interesting that Zenph seems to be concentrating on pianists who always flirted with eccentricity, perhaps pathology, even as they exhibited genius. I would like to hear what they do with the very few recordings left by composer-pianists like Debussy, Ravel, perhaps even that old recording of Brahms. The wonderful recordings of Charles Ives, though, should never be touched by this technology. Those are perfectly transcendent in themselves. I’m still not giving up the “originals” of any of them, though.